Who Am I Without the Pool?

How student athletes are inadvertently forfeiting their identity to achieve greatness

Me competing in my first swim meet, age 9

September 19 was the day that I was told that I could never swim again.

My doctor was wearing bright green pants. He looked me in the eye. He looked at his clipboard. He looked back at me.

“Maybe you could try cross country skiing?”

And with those six words, he effectively terminated my eight-year athletic career.

Let me be clear — I knew this was coming. Over the course of three years, I had seen six physical therapists, a sports medicine doctor, and two orthopedic surgeons. Hell, I’d even tried acupuncture. I’d had more x-rays than I can count and an excruciatingly painful MRI, which revealed nothing. My parents poured thousands of dollars into medical bills and insurance copays. Every swim season was a feverish battle against my body, trying to heal my shoulder faster than I was destroying it.

I couldn’t take notes in school, I couldn’t raise my hand in class, and a couple times a day I would lose all feeling below my right elbow. But every single day after school I would get in the pool and swim the most painful 8,000 yards of my life.

I was sacrificing the use of my right arm for a high school sport that I wasn’t really even that good at. I could barely justify it. “I just want to finish this season,” I’d say. “They think it’s going to get better.” It was not. I knew that. My doctors knew it, my coaches knew it, my family knew it. Why was I clinging so desperately to something that was causing me so much damage?

I loved swimming, but it had been an especially frustrating season. When I thought about quitting, I felt almost a sense of relief. Finally, this uphill battle would be over.

And then I actually quit.

September 20th marked the beginning of some of the worst weeks of my life. I couldn’t stop thinking about swimming. I thought about my first practice, my first meet, my most spectacular successes and my worst failures. My self-esteem plummeted and took my mental health with it. And I realized how one dimensional my identity had become.

The term “athletic identity” is a relatively new one, but the phenomenon has been around since the beginning of sports. It’s defined by the Dictionary of Sports and Exercise Science and Medicine as “the degree to which a person identifies with an athletic role as part of their self-concept.” In simpler words, it’s how much you allow your sport to shape your life.

How much should we allow sports to shape our life? There’s no simple answer. Some sense of athletic identity is essential for successful athletes. It nurtures commitment, fosters a genuine love for the sport, and provides motivation. Conversely, as someone’s athletic identity strengthens, their perceived self-worth becomes contingent on their successes and failures in the sport.

Although a lot of people develop a unilateral identity as an athlete, most never realize it. But as sports specialization happens earlier and earlier, injury rates among young people have almost doubled, forcing many more athletes to face the repercussions.

Sitting on the sidelines for a few weeks may not seem like a big deal, but for some it’s a devastating blow. “One study using 280 athletes found that the perceived impact of chronic injury was equivalent to the impact of natural disasters, like floods and hurricanes,” said Barbara Lockhart, EdD. “These elite athletes perceived chronic injury as a life or death matter.”

Separating someone’s athletic performance from their overall self-esteem is crucial for mitigating the effects of failure, injury or retirement. But how do we do that?

“Assure the athlete that you value them without regard to athletic prowess. Focus on treating the person first as a valued individual, then focus on the injury,” suggests Lockhart. “Parents can tell children that they love them whether they win or lose. They can relate to their child as a person first and then as an athlete.”

However, the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on parents, coaches and trainers. Young athletes need to find other sources of pride and develop different aspects of their identities. “Gaining a clear understanding of who [the athletes] are ‘off the pitch’ will enable them to widen their sense of self, gain clarity over their other strengths and protect them from longer term psychological difficulties,” says sports psychology consultant Rebecca Symes.

The athlete needs to realize that it is possible to form a concept of self that is distinct from his or her athletic performance.

When you can’t play your sport anymore, a sense of loss is expected. Healthy, even. But when I quit swimming, I felt that I had lost my entire sense of self. I didn’t know who I was without it. And so days after ending some of the most excruciatingly painful weeks of my life, I started a new chapter.

Self-discovery is not an easy journey. I spent weeks wallowing in my self-pity, convincing myself that I had no other skills and I was now doomed to a life of failure. But through the unwavering support of my friends and family (and as people got tired of hearing me complain,) it finally dawned on me that my life would go on.

The life-shattering effects of my early retirement could have been alleviated if I’d already had an identity outside of the pool. I wouldn’t have pushed myself so far past the breaking point. I wouldn’t have surrendered myself to a lifetime of chronic pain. But now, I’m finally beginning to find strength and pride in my other accomplishments. I’m learning to accept myself regardless of my best times.

I am a daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin, friend. I’m fluent in two languages and I play three instruments. I’m a camper, hiker, sailor, climber. I work at a bakery, I volunteer, I’m a mentor. I am so much more than just a swimmer.

Works Cited

Jayanthi, Neeru, Courtney Pinkham, Lara Dugas, Brittany Patrick, and Cynthia LaBella. “Sports Specialization in Young Athletes.” Sports Health. SAGE Publications, May 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Lockheart, Barbara D. “Injured Athletes’ Perceived Loss of Identity.” Athletic Training Education Journal January-March 5.1 (2010): n. pag. Web.

Sokolove, Michael. “The Uneven Playing Field.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 May 2008. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Symes, Rebecca. “Understanding Athletic Identity: ‘Who Am I?’” Podium Sports Journal. N.p., 24 May 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

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